May 24, 2018

Is distance education stealing on-campus students?

On campus – or online?

Poulin, R. (2018) Distance Ed Growth – Access is a Big Motivator, but it’s Complicated, WCET Frontiers, February 1

This post is essential reading for university and college administrators. It combines the latest U.S. Department of Education data on distance and overall enrolments with a specific survey asking institutions why online and distance education is growing so rapidly when overall enrolments in the USA are static. It therefore raises some fundamental policy issues for institutions.

For Canadian readers, while there are significant differences between the two systems, I think the findings here will be equally true for Canada, since I will show in this post that we have a similar situation with even greater expansion of online learning while overall enrolments have been largely static over the last couple of years.

Enrolments trends

USA

Phil Hill of eLiterate did an analysis of the data recently released by the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics. Russ Poulin of WCET summarised this in his blog post in the table below:

Table 1: Growth in DE and overall enrolments in US Higher Education: 2012-2016

Source: Poulin, 2018, from Hill, P. and NCES

It can be seen that the number and percentage of ALL students enrolled in higher education is slightly down, but the number of students taking all courses at a distance has grown by 30.1%.

Canada

We can see a similar trend in Canada. The graph below is from Alex Usher’s One Thought blog, which in turn is derived from Statistics Canada.

Figure 1: Total enrolments by Institution Type, Canada, 2006-07 to 2015-16

Source: Usher, A. (2018) Student Numbers, One Thought to Start Your Day, January 9

It can be seen that overall enrolments in universities have been almost flat over the last four years and have declined slightly in colleges over the last two years.

On the other hand, our national survey of online and distance education in Canadian post-secondary education found that over the period 2011-2015, online college enrolments outside Québec increased by 15% per annum (60% 0verall), and for all universities (including Québec) increased by 14% per annum (56% overall). The situation in the Quebec colleges (CEGEPs) was more complicated with an overall decline of 5% in online enrolments over the same period.

Are online enrolments eating the campus lunch?

Russ Poulin at WCET was gnawing away at two questions that these data raised in his mind:

  • what is driving the expansion of online/distance education when overall enrolments are flat? Access, more money, other reasons?
  • are online enrolments being achieved at the expense of campus-based classes?

So, as any good researcher would, he sent out a questionnaire to WCET member institutions and received 192 responses, including a very interesting set of open ended comments. His blog post summarises the responses and I recommend you read it in full, but the following chart gets to the essence:

Figure 2: Reasons for the growth in Distance Education

Source: Poulin, R. (2018)

What does it mean?

Here are my key takeaways:

  • it’s complex: there are several reasons for the growth of online learning: increasing access and/or greater student convenience are not mutually exclusive to increasing revenues, for instance;
  • only 19% believed the move to online learning is primarily about increasing revenues;
  • just under half said it does not affect campus-based enrolments; these are students who would not have come to campus
  • nearly two thirds reported that distance education (probably meaning online learning, the distinction was not made in the survey) is leading to more blended/hybrid options, i.e. it is beginning to impact on classroom teaching, a similar finding to ours in the national survey.

The primary reason for ‘flat’ or declining overall enrolments is demographic. There are fewer 18 year olds than 10 years ago in both countries (and if the Dreamers in the USA are kicked out, that number will go down even more). However, both international and online students, many of them older and in the work force, have helped to compensate for this demographic loss, although recently international on-campus student enrolments have decreased in the USA and accelerated in Canada, making the growth of online learning even more important for the USA institutions.

Faculty and instructors should welcome this surge in online learning, because without it, many would have lost their jobs.

Lastly, online learning is now impacting classroom teaching. This means that institutions need policies, strategies and probably some funding reallocation to support the move to blended/hybrid learning, and faculty development and training in digital learning will become even more essential. Institutions that do not move in this direction run the risk of losing enrolments and with it funding.

Isn’t it nice to see policy issues being driven by data rather than opinions? Well done, Russ and WCET.

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